The Greatest of Sins by Christine Merrill

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Giving in to temptation would be the ruin of them all!Having spent years believing a lie about his birth, Dr. Samuel Hastings has been condemned to a personal hell of his desire’s making—his sinful thoughts of the one woman he can never touch would damn his soul for eternity.

Lady Evelyn Thorne is engaged to the very suitable Duke of St. Aldric when a shocking truth is revealed—and now Sam will play every bit of the devil to seduce the woman he thought would always be denied him!

Rating: C

I’ve read a number of Christine Merrill’s novels, and in general, I have found her to be one of the most reliable of Harlequin’s stable of historical romance authors. But while I applaud her attempt to put a different spin on this particular story of childhood sweethearts cruelly separated, I don’t think it was completely successful. The second half of the book failed to deliver in terms of the story; the characterizations of the hero and heroine seemed to contradict what we had previously learned about them, and the pacing felt uneven.

Samuel Hastings was a foundling child, brought up in the household of Lord Thorne alongside his daughter, Evelyn. The two children grew up together and were inseparable – spirited, intelligent Evie was an adventurous playmate – but as the pair grew older their friendship began to develop into something more.

Very shortly after sharing an innocent – though promising – kiss, Sam left without explanation to pursue his studies in medicine, and then three years later, joined the Navy and took a post as ship’s surgeon where he served during England’s war with France. Throughout all that time, Evie wrote to him, but he never responded to her letters. Returned to England a grown man, he returns to his childhood home to see his adopted father for the last time, to thank him for being his benefactor. Sam’s intention is to sever ties with the Thornes once and for all, but Evie will not have it.

She has carried a torch for Sam through all the years of his absence, and needs to know if he feels the same way about her. She is fairly sure he does, but is shocked and saddened by his coldness towards her and at a loss to explain it. In the few months prior to the beginning of the book, she attracted the notice of the handsome and powerful Duke of St. Aldric and has waited to see Sam once more before making up her mind as to whether or not to accept St. Aldric’s proposal.

I always like a “friends-to-lovers” story, so the first part of the book worked well for me. Sam is clearly a very troubled man, full of self-loathing and desperate to get away from his former “family.” Hints are dropped and although it is not explicitly stated at this point, it soon becomes clear why Sam left and continues to reject Evie at every turn. I have to say that this is possibly the first time I have come across this plot element used in a mainstream historical romance, and I think that Ms. Merrill makes good use of it. She has also not made Evie’s other suitor some elderly curmudgeon for the reader to dislike; no, St. Aldric is young, handsome, intelligent and incredibly good-natured, and he immediately discerns that there is something between Hastings and his would-be fiancée.

Evie (and I did find the fact that her name continually switched between “Evie” and “Eve” to be rather annoying) has no idea as to the reasons for Sam’s inner turmoil and contradictory nature. She loves him and is sure he loves her – and in her desperation, tries to seduce him, but he refuses her and sends her packing, intending to leave and never come back.

I admit, I did find Evie to be rather forward in her behavior for a well-bred young lady of the time. She is her father’s only child, and I imagine could have been rather over-indulged as a result, but her going unaccompanied to find Sam at the inn at which he is staying and then offering herself on a plate seemed a little too careless of the proprieties, even taking into account her misery at the prospect of losing him forever.

Evie extracts a promise from Sam that he will not leave before the ball being held to celebrate her betrothal to St. Aldric, and extracts a promise from her father that he will tell Sam the truth about his parentage on the same evening. Sam is actually St. Aldric’s half-brother, something Evie has long suspected. She needed only to see them together to be able to confront her father with her knowledge, get the truth out of him and arrange for him to tell the two men. St. Aldric has no family whatsoever and Evie is convinced he will be overjoyed at finding that he is no longer alone in the world.

Up until this point, I thought the story was progressing very well. Sam and Evie were very much in love, Sam was about to find out he was related to a duke, St. Aldric is such a nice guy that he won’t hold Evie to her promise once he realizes she’s in love with another man. Everything is about to be nicely wrapped up.

But the book wasn’t quite half finished and I was at a loss as to how the author was going to sustain the story past that point. Sadly, the rest of the book was very uneven and I found it difficult to maintain my interest. Sam suddenly became rather an unsympathetic character – having been a young man tormented by what he thought were unnatural desires and filled with self-disgust, he turned into a selfish git who was determined to get what he wanted no matter who he hurt in the process.

And Evie, having fallen into bed with him at the first available opportunity (only a few rooms away from the her betrothed’s sickroom, no less!) suddenly acquires a conscience, decides that she can’t desert St. Aldric after all, and spends several chapters avoiding Sam and keeping him at arms’ length.

I could understand both characters’ reasons for behaving as they did. Evie decided to sacrifice her happiness in order for Sam to know the truth about his birth and Sam, realizing he was given the truth when it was too late to do anything with it, was bitter, jealous and determined to dislike his half-brother. But understanding didn’t make their actions any more palatable in my opinion.

It’s left to St. Aldric, struck down with the mumps (which can result in impotence and/or infertility in adult males) to sort out the mess. He has not been nicknamed “Saint” for nothing – although I’m sure there’s more to him than seen here, and will be looking out for his story in the second book of this duo. Talking with Evie about the possible consequences of his illness, he makes it sound as though the real reason he wants to marry her is simply so that she can provide him with an heir, and suggests that if he is unable to “do the deed” himself, she should sleep with someone else in order to become pregnant, preferably someone who is physically similar to him. Like his half-brother, for instance. His attitude is laconically blasé and rather calculating, to cover the fact that he is deliberately letting Evie off the hook, suggesting to her that if she doesn’t like his contingency plan, that they should end their engagement.

She does so, and in telling her father, discovers the true reason that Sam fled six years previously. Lord Thorne, whom she had thought loved her and had her best interests at heart, had seen the burgeoning love between his daughter and the duke’s by-blow and was determined to stop it. Sam, however, had been equally as determined to pursue it which provoked Lord Thorne into the falsehood that had sent Sam away. She is horrified at that, and then upset at the fact that her father, having lost the opportunity to have a duke in the family, is keen to marry her off to whomever will have her (other than Sam, whom he actively dislikes) so that he can enter into a new marriage of his own.

But Sam has already left, and Evie has no idea where to find him. Yet again, St. Aldric acts as fairy godmother to the couple, telling Evie where to look and giving her the use of his carriage so that she can get there quickly.

Of course all ends happily, and Sam does show remorse for his attitude and behavior towards his brother and his selfishness in his determination to pursue Evie, regardless. But I was left feeling dissatisfied. I found it hard to care about Evie or Sam in the second half of the book; both were acting rather contrary to their characters as established and I quite lost all patience with them! In fact, St. Aldric was by far the more engaging character – showing himself to be intuitive and kind without being too good to be true.

In terms of the execution, the book is well written, as one would expect from an established author like Christine Merrill. Sam, the tortured hero is engaging and sympathetic, but becomes less so, while the Duke of St. Aldric comes from the background to the foreground of the story to emerge as a hero-in-the-making, and I’ll certainly be looking out for his story later this year.

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